Above photo from left to right: Sr. Therese Wetta ’64, ASC, Dr. Brad Dart ’97, Francis Sio, Augustine Sio
When God wants something done, He sure knows how to make it happen. The following is a story of many individuals who through connections and God’s work found a way to bring an 11-year-old boy from Liberia to the United States for life-changing surgery.
Francis Sio lives in the city of Grand Cess, a small town of approximately 2,000 people located in southeastern Liberia. His favorite pastimes include playing soccer (known as football in Liberia) and running around with his friends. However, Francis was born with clubfoot so those daily activities didn’t come as easily to him as they did to his friends.
Movement was a little more difficult since he couldn’t walk on the flat of his foot. His speed wasn’t always equal to that of his friends. But that didn’t stop him from doing the things he loves.
Due to his location, it seemed his condition was something he would just have to learn to live with forever. Proper treatments weren’t available to him. Casting couldn’t be done and there weren’t any medical facilities that could perform the type of surgery he needed.
So Francis learned how to play, run, walk and live with what he’d been given.
One evening, a Peace Corps volunteer who taught science and math in the public schools of Grand Cess was having dinner with Sr. Therese Wetta, a Newman University alumna and member of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ (ASC) Wichita Center and Sr. Zita Resch. Wetta was serving a two-year ministry in Liberia and teaching in St. Patrick’s Grand Cess schools.
The two women started a discussion about the limitations of health care in Liberia, which led to another conversation about a boy they knew from the village, Francis Sio, who needed a surgery that couldn’t be done where they were living.
Sr. Therese said she began trying to decipher possibilities for Francis. As a Newman University alumna, she started thinking about her many connections to alumni working in the Wichita medical field.
She decided to reach out to Dr. Brad Dart, a 1997 Newman alumnus and orthopedic surgeon in Wichita.
“As I mused about how to get Francis to the U.S. for this surgery when there is little money in Grand Cess for even the basics, I thought about Dr. Dart, his expertise and his partnership in the surgery center in Wichita,” explained Sr. Therese.
Unfortunately, Dr. Dart explained that he and his team would not be able to help because of Francis’ age, but he could offer a connection to a place that could. Dart had remained in contact with a doctor at the Shriners Hospital for Children in St. Louis, where Dart had done his residency. The connection was made and after some communication and medical forms were completed, the process was set in motion.
Wetta added, “Without Dr. Dart’s prior experience there and his connections to Shriners, Francis probably never would have had this chance.”
Francis and his father would need to apply for visas, interview with the U.S. embassy and provide proof that someone would provide and pay for room and board in the U.S. However, there seemed to be obstacles at every turn.
To help secure visas and make travel arrangements, Sr. Therese enlisted the help of a pastor from the Sios’ church.
“I taught grades seven through nine so I only knew Francis as a third-grade student at our school and his parents through the church,” said Sr. Therese. “Fr. Francis Topor, the pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish, knew them well and was a continuous help in the process of getting all the items together that are needed to apply for a visa.”
The process began in June 2019; the visas would finally be granted in February 2020.
Francis’ father, Augustine, needed an official copy of his birth certificate, which meant a two-day car trip to Monrovia. After the journey, and a week of waiting, Augustine received his certificate. The process of applying for the visa could now begin.
Paperwork was sent in early September and an interview was granted in November. From technical problems at the embassy to an initial denial after the first try, the group did not lose faith but tried again.
Time was running short. Sr. Therese’s resident permit in Liberia was set to expire and she already had reservations to return to the U.S. Feb. 20. She needed to find a way to continue advocating and working with Francis and his father when she returned home.
“There is no electricity in Grand Cess — generators are used to charge phones and computers — and there is a very limited number of computers. I had an iPad but did not have printing capabilities. Thank God the pastor had one and could help us out. The embassy did respond to my email and asked for more information.”
After receiving new documentation and information, which included a letter of invitation from Shriners Hospital and a letter from the ASC stating they would provide room and board, the embassy decided to grant a special six-month visa under medical emergency. The interview embassy officials conducted with the Sios in November would be used so a second interview would not be necessary.
Sr. Therese received word that the visas had been approved Feb. 4, 2020 — the feast day of St. Maria De Mattias, foundress of the ASC.
She was finally able to arrange travel and the Sios would soon be on their way to the U.S.
Everything started to fall into place. Flights were booked, Shriners Hospital reserved a surgery date for the third time since they had begun the process and housing was available and arranged through the ASC.
“The Providence of God was working overtime,” exclaimed Sr. Therese. “Everything was providentially falling into place to facilitate the trip. I truly am convinced that all of this happened because the ASC sisters continued to pray that Francis would get this life-changing surgery.”
Francis and his father arrived in St. Louis and Ruma on Feb. 21, Francis’ 11th birthday. The ASC sisters greeted them with a birthday cake and ice cream.
After six weeks of weekly casting, Francis had his surgery April 15. During his time in the U.S., Francis has been receiving his academic education from his father, who is a math teacher, and Sr. Therese with the help of the other ASC sisters. But his education didn’t stop at the academic level.
Francis spent time studying religion, learning the mysteries of the rosary, and even leading the rosary each evening. He also prepared for his First Reconciliation and First Communion before his return to Grand Cess.
Both Francis and his father have expressed their gratitude toward the ASC and others who have played a role in this journey and Augustine wrote a personal thank you letter to the donor who made it possible for him and his son to make the trip and stay with the sisters while in the U.S.
For both Francis and his father, their trip to the U.S. has been surreal. A first-time plane trip along with new foods, TV shows and games have all given Francis an experience that he will not soon forget.
Sr. Therese said, “He definitely misses his mother and brother very much and is getting more excited each day about getting home in August to be with them and other friends. They both express daily how grateful they are for the surgery and the experiences they’ve had while here.
“Daily comforts we take for granted — clean water, warm water and showers, air conditioning and heat, automobiles, sufficient food and a variety of it, a washer and dryer — these are all new and amazing to them.”
She added that she, too, has learned much from this experience. She is reminded about the miracle of God working through people, and is also reminded how love, patience and faith work hand in hand.
“This all started with a Newman alumni connection — a connection and outreach on behalf of a child in an impoverished country and giving him a corrected foot and hope for him and his family for a better future.”